Big Bang, the South Korean pop group that is enormously popular throughout Asia, is trying to live up to its name on these shores as well.
Judging by ticket sales for their U.S. debut this month, the boy band that blends hip-hop, high fashion and theatrics into a polished package is off to a good start. Tickets for their Alive Tour — at the Prudential Center and Anaheim’s Honda Center — sold out within a few hours in September, prompting their management to add dates.
Sure, they can sell out arenas in cities with large Asian-American populations, but are these pop sensations the harbinger of a larger Korean pop trend in the U.S.?
Not likely, says Amy He, editor in chief at the Manhattan-based Korean pop culture website Seoul Beats. “I think their following is a niche on this side of the globe. A lot of the Western press is saying K-pop is the biggest thing right now. I don’t think that’s true,” said He.
American fans first need to embrace more Asian-American artists, something they haven’t done yet, said He. “It’s not like there aren’t Asian-American artists out there. It’s more that we have to start with American acts like Far East Movement before we can accept K-pop,” she said.
One recent exception is the Korean artist Psy, who became a momentary household name last month when he had everyone from Britney Spears to the U.S. Navy mimicking his “Gangnam Style” dance moves. But Psy is an outlier, said He. “He’s not representative of the Korean pop market. He’s not boy or girl group material. He’s more subversive, cheeky and sarcastic,” she said.
K-pop is short for the genre of pop music churned out by the big three Korean record labels, which has been a cultural trend-setter in Asia. Teens from the Philippines to Taiwan pine after these well-coiffed boy and girl groups.
Breaking into the United States has not been as straightforward. Rain made it to People magazine’s Most Beautiful People list in 2007 and continues to tour here. Girl group 2EN1 is linked up with producer Will.i.am, and played the Prudential Center in August.
“A lot of the groups have tried to court the market here, but it’s a very expensive market. It’s not as guaranteed they can fill up a big arena,” said He. In Asia, these acts are easier to market because of a common shared Asian culture. “A lot of these boy and girl groups represent an aspirational product. They represent a lifestyle, glamour and trendiness,” she said.
He, who attended 2EN1’s August concert in Newark, said the crowd was about half Korean-American. “It was a pretty diverse crowd. Teens are finding them through social media and YouTube. But I don’t think it’s an overlap with the Justin Bieber crowd,” she said.
Among recent popular K-pop acts, Big Bang has the most Westernized sound. The quintet, whose members also have solo careers, mix hip-hop, R&B, rock and electronic styles and cite Wu-Tang Clan and Michael Jackson as musical influences.
For Stella Kim, who bought $325 VIP tickets to catch the Big Bang show in Newark on Friday, her love of Korean pop music didn’t start until college and has been a way to connect with her roots. “I grew up in a Caucasian neighborhood in Rockland County [Tappan, N.Y.]. My Korean was really bad in high school. I always wanted to be a part of Korean culture and didn’t know where to begin,” said the 24-year-old, now in Manhattan, who is a marketing manager for celebrity fragrance lines.
Kim, who is also a fan of Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Eminem, said she loves Big Bang’s fashion, their genre-mixing sound and that they write some of their own songs. “Each one of them has their own unique characteristics. They work together so well, and all of them shine in their own light,” she said.
She’s betting that Big Bang is likely to make the biggest impact here. “I think a lot of Korean groups are trying to come into the American market,” she said. “I’m not saying this just as a fan, but [Big Bang’s] music and style has the most potential here.”